Which school should lead in integrating public service in its undergraduate courses but the public service university itself, UP? UP’s Interior Design program is a trailblazer. Since more than 15 years ago, it has left the studio for its application course in order to embrace public service, an initiative that has given its students an edge over others.
The decision to take this untrodden path followed an era of soul-searching in the University, where a study in the early 1990s revealed that students ranked social orientation and moral uprightness far down in the order of importance of the qualities their colleges were developing in them. Reaching out to the community became a buzz-word, with UP Vice President for Public Affairs Ledivina Cariño promoting service learning as “learning to serve, and serving to learn.”
A basic need
The College of Home Economics led by Dean Cecilia Florencio was one of the first to respond by serving the poor of nearby Libis. The Interior Design program saw an opportunity to turn the impression of Interior Design as elitist on its head. From the beginning, it was the wrong impression, Interior Design professor Adelaida Mayo says. She places Interior Design as a basic need.
“There’s food, clothing, and shelter. Architecture deals with shelter, but where is its soul? It’s in the space people use. It’s inside. The shelter will just be the shell of it,” Mayo says.
She raises the question of livability: the lack of finances precludes enjoying the benefits of proper interior design. “In low-cost housing, for example, there is really no Interior Design team to do it. And that has led to problems and accidents.”
The advocacy for democratizing Interior Design must start with students. They must have the opportunity to directly touch people’s lives through the discipline they have been studying in the past three years, and to understand the enormous public service potential of their field.
Going into direct public service was a practical alternative for an application course, which aims to “apply the knowledge, skills and competencies acquired and developed during the first three years of extensive training in interior design through a special project of their choice.”
Beyond the studio
For a long time, students of Interior Design were applying their skills only in the studio. This is understandable as designing actual interiors and implementing them requires a license, which students could not possibly have before graduation. They were compelled to simulate interior space, staging mock-ups of walls and ceilings and floors, furnishing, decorating and then exhibiting them inside halls, which was an expensive affair. But the resources went to waste in the inevitable dismantling for the egress. The students had no idea how their designs would have held up in actual use.
Mayo and Raquel Florendo, who were handling the two classes of ID 179 Special Projects Class, broached the idea of merging their classes to serve financially challenged institutions whose spaces were in dire need of rehabilitation. The students would be under the close supervision of the professors, whose licenses would take care of the legal requirements for the projects.
The students discussed the proposal among themselves and accepted the new challenge of the class. Grouped into teams, they helped look for project sites. They consulted with, and proposed designs for screening by, their professors. They coordinated among themselves to unify their concepts. Making cost estimates, they then set out to raise funds and get sponsorships.
In academic year 2001-2002, ID 179 Special Projects rolled out in eight cottages of the Department of Social Welfare and Development’s Reception and Study Center for Children; the clinic and therapy rooms of the Golden Acres Home for the Aged; and a model unit for Gawad Kalinga. At the end of the first semester, what had been dark, dreary, and beat-up spaces had turned into bright and proper spaces to welcome back children recovering from trauma, the aged regaining strength and positive outlooks, and the poorest of the poor reclaiming their dignity.
The bar was set for future batches. Since then, students have worked on important sections of public hospitals and clinics; schools and dormitories; halfway houses and shelters for women, children, the recovering sick and the disabled; dance studios for the talented poor; libraries; and Gawad Kalinga housing.
“Caring for the sick child not only needs competent healthcare professionals,” said Dr. Julius Lecciones, director of the Philippine Children’s Medical Center, “but also an appropriate healing environment in the hospital… With the use of smart colors, lighting and design, the students were able to transform clinically drab and impersonal outpatient consultation rooms into a welcoming haven that exudes warmth, brilliance and comfort.”
Bringing joy to families
“I can’t thank the students and the teachers enough for their sacrifices, work, physical struggles, and good heart,” says Donald Geocaniga, a Gawad Kalinga director. “They brought joy to seven families whose houses they fixed. They raised the level of their living. They showed the way in caring for the poor, as they volunteered their services to us.”
Aside from the gratitude of partner institutions, the students had more benefits going their way. As expected, the students got to learn the practical side of their discipline and expanded their competencies into community work. Limited resources stretched their creativity. Also, they got the rare portfolio edge of having implemented designs on special sites, and getting critiques from the end-users.
“What they did gave us a place that is very comfortable for the body and beautiful for the eyes. Before, cleaning seemed to make little difference in our unit. It’s much better now,” says one Gawad Kalinga beneficiary.
“At night, we finally have the sleep we could only crave in the past. And when we wake up, wow! Our home now energizes us. I am now more active in serving the Lord, bonding with neighbors and other people,” says another.
Balancing aesthetics, function, and safety
By working on actual spaces with their beneficiaries, all the more do the students realize the importance of consultations, understanding the idiosyncrasies and needs of different people, and temperance and balancing aesthetics, function, and safety.
Students also get to feel they are very much needed in the world. By making a difference in people’s lives, they contribute to an awareness of Interior Design as essential to the quality of life.
But public service requires commitment, which may be hard to afford at times. Sometimes, the logistics are too much to grapple with, and piecemeal efforts could prove wasteful. Sometimes, the students feel they have too much on their hands. In such cases, the students could opt to go back to mounting studio exhibits, which, though not less expensive or less expressive of their talent, is less complicated and formidable.
In the end, serving a needy institution is a decision by students deliberating among themselves. The students’ public service, when they choose to do it, thus stands as an act of voluntarism. And for some, this is the kind of public service that gives UP students a real defining edge.